In the footsteps of Sir Douglas Mawson - trip blog

21-12-2010

Friday, 31 December 2010
Day 24:
Campbell Island

The day began at 0600 with wake-up calls, mustering the troops for breakfast and briefing. This morning's landings were presented as a military operation. The first group would hit the beaches at 0830 and face the enemy almost instantly they boarded the Zodiacs to shore. Instead of entrenched machine guns and land mines, the obstacles included a scary 40 knot wind blowing across the harbour driving sleet and rain like shrapnel. The first party wouldn't meet their objective for almost eight hours after a mighty hike across 'the saddle' down to Northwest Bay and back for extraction mid-afternoon, all the time savage gusts assailed them. Casualties began arriving back aboard within two hours, wet and bedraggled, the initial resistance had forced a partial withdrawal, but the survivors valiantly pursued their target. A second wave landed at 1030 and a third at 1400 which included several survivors of the first assault. The whole significance of this beachhead was to secure sightings and photos of the great albatross that breed here. Rodney even called it the 'Albatross Headquarters of the Southern Ocean'. After the day's operations and a hearty meal of lamb shanks and pork belly, Ewen's photography competition winners were announced and the day declared a success.

 

Thursday, 30 December 2010
Days 18 – 23: The Screaming Sixties and Furious Fifties

photo credit: Peter Diddams

"Beyond the Roaring Forties there are the Furious Fifties and Shrieking Sixties, for the storms that ravage these regions become more and more severe as one proceeds further south.” - Herbert Ponting 1921

After five days at sea, Spirit of Enderby finally drops anchor in our refuge in Perseverance Harbour at Campbell Island. Like rabbits in spring time, hibernating passengers emerge from their cabins alerted by the sudden stability of the ship. After the bucking and rolling of the Southern Ocean, one could be forgiven for thinking we'd run aground. In truth, it wasn't as bad as legend would have it, but to call it a doddle would still be an understatement. It gave us a chance to sample the privations of extended time at sea battling queezy tummies, cabin fever and just plain boredom. The seas were too rough to be climbing up and down to the lecture theatre, so improvised laptop movie screenings, card games and humble book reading tested our resilience. Even so, our heated, well-stocked vessel was a paradise compared to last century's heroic explorers who bunkered down in pitching wooden sailing boats urged on by pitiful steam engines with as much power as a couple of Zodiac outboards. There were no mutinies to put down, no dogs and ponies to rescue from rogue waves, no frostbite or scurvy. Ewen's photo competition has been a huge hit with many passengers entering an impressive portfolio of images. We sat down, playfully bickered over the winners and are ready to announce the results to an eager audience tomorrow after a busy day planned ashore on this remote sanctuary.

 

Saturday, 25 December 2010
Day 17:
Blizzard and Plunge

As the captain turned to set a course for Campbell Island, the Antarctic weather gave us a fitting send-off with a stiff, snow-laden gale from the north west. The giant bergs still lurked all around, ominous and powerful, reminding us we were the ones in their territory. One ceremony remained before our final farewell; the polar plunge. Yes,, as it sounds, adventurers strip back to swimmers and scamper down the gangway for a very quick dip in the icy waters – and icy they are. With Christmas hats, Hawaiian leis and surf shorts, brave bodies dunked themselves off the platform and quickly scurried back up the steps amid yelps and hollers. Back aboard, Christmas festivities were begun a day early to capitalise on the 'white' theme delivered in the form of whirling snow flurries. Deck the decks, indeed.

 

Friday, 24 December 2010
Day 16:
Too much ice

For days we have been admiring the magnificent ice structures towering out of the ocean. Some as high as 50m covering many square kilometres, the equivalent of free-floating islands. But today we cursed them, or at least I did. By early afternoon it was clear our southerly path to Dumont d'Urville was blocked by a belt of heavy ice. Spirit of Enderby had valiantly confronted this obstacle, time and time again attempting to skirt or break through the pack that kept us 32 miles from our objective. Rodney came over the PA system with the news. We would spend our early Christmas in the ice, then head north back to Invercargill via Campbell Island. The French base had already warned us of heavy conditions when their own icebreaker, Astrolabe, had been delayed. SoE is not an icebreaker in the strictest sense, instead she is an ice-strengthened vessel with a bow that can barge and shove its way through the floating pack, but there is a real risk of getting trapped if the currents close the door behind us. True icebreakers are much more powerful with a hull that rides up on the ice, cracking it under the weight of the ship. As we turn to head away from the impenetrable
mass, three lonely Emperor penguins and several boisterous Adelies line up to farewell and commiserate us. Such is the nature of this land, full of promise and disappointment in equal measure.

 

Thursday, 23 December 2010
Day 15:
return to Cape Denison

To our mild surprise, Rodney announced that we had returned to Cape Denison during the night as the ice had been too heavy to make our intended landing at Port Martin, the former French base. We held off in the morning and went back for our last visit to Mawson's Hut after lunch. I took this opportunity to meet the three members of the Mawsons Hut conservation team who had arrived on the French vessel, Astrolabe, the day before yesterday (Day 10). Dr Dave from the team gave me a little rundown on their activities over the next five weeks and invited me over to see their digs at Sorensen Hut behind the hill to the east. A relatively modern hut, it contained all the kit used by today's expeditioners and stood in stark contrast to the meagre and rudimentary facilities afforded Mawson's team 100 years ago. Dave agreed, most generously, to stamp my little logbook and showed me the pile of philatelic covers and letters Australia Post had burdened him with for special marking. “They gave me a crash course, so I am now officially the postmaster of Cape Denison,” he said with a twinkle of pride, “I'll get through these during the next blizzard!” As a mark of farewell, the breeze quickened to a mild wind, enough to remind us that if it wanted to, it could muster 100 knots or more of bone-chilling katabatic tempest. We were grateful for the restraint.

Posted by Roderick

 

Wednesday, 22 December 2010
Day 14:
Icebergs and Whales

It's day's like today that define the entire Antarctic visitor experience. After breakfast we pulled anchor at Commonwealth Bay and set off in search of the world's largest iceberg. Twelve months ago, two massive ice bodies the size of small European republics squared off. The 2500 sq km iceberg, B98, bore down on the similarly sized Mertz ice tongue, a floating extension of the mighty glacier of the same name. The resulting collision snapped off the tongue creating two ice masses that contained billions of tons of frozen water. Now breaking up, huge tabular bergs the size of Pacific islands are now adrift along the coast. Towering as high as 30m with sheer white cliff faces, they look like monstrous polystyrene carvings with escorting fragments and 'bergie bits' ranging in size from office blocks to station wagons. We set out in Zodiacs to cruise among them when a young fin whale is attracted to our noisy outboards. He circles and dives, surfacing occasionally for a close look and even showering the passengers from his blow hole. The encounter lasts almost an hour before he tires and retreats, leaving us with plenty to gloat about over dinner.

 

Tuesday, 21 December 2010
Day 13:
Home of the Blizzard

Location: 66 deg 60' S, 142 deg 37' E
Vessel: Spirit of Enderby, 1750 tons, 50 pax, 71.6m

If I was hoping for a re-enactment of Mawson's legendary 'Home of the Blizzard', then I would be bitterly disappointed. After ten days travelling south through NZ's sub-Antarctic islands, then Macquarie Island to reach this 'Great White South', instead of some howling gale and the devastating fury of nature, we found ourselves motoring sedately ashore on a millpond. The sun peeps through a thin cloudy layer occasionally and many of us are stripped back to shirt sleeves. Not frostbite or gangrene, but sunburn.

Commonwealth Bay, or more precisely, just off Cape Denison, is where Heritage Expeditions' Spirit of Enderby is anchored. A short Zodiac ride delivers us to the very site used by Mawson and his team for landing their stores and themselves, then we follow the same path to the hut and wait patiently for our turn to tour inside. With windows boarded up and skylights closed, it's all but pitch black inside, but Rodney Russ is there with his flashlight pointing out the empty bunks, still with the famous names engraved; Hurley, Ninnis and Mertz are just three. Provisions, books, crockery and utensils still line the shelves almost as if the residents still expect to return. The hut is one of the famed suite of historic Antarctic huts preserved and restored for posterity and as a living memorial to the brave (and sometimes foolish) men who ventured south in the name of science and glory.

“We've been coming here every year since '98 and to the Antarctic since '93,” says Russ, who's modest, family-owned company is one of the true pioneers in Antarctic tourism in the Ross Sea region, “and in all that time we've never missed a landing here. Sure, they are not always as easy as as they were today, but we make it.”

Antarctica and especially the deep southern regions around the Ross Sea make for some of the most extreme expedition cruising available. The possibility of rough seas, small vessels and disappointment make this a journey for the hardiest travellers. Yet the cross section of passengers is surprising. The youngest is 22 and the oldest well over 70. All possess a commendable sense of adventure and are eagerly waiting at the gangway when departures are announced. Few mention any desire to travel aboard the big vessels for pleasure, instead it is the destination and experience they crave with the ship merely a means of fulfilling their passion.

To call this type of voyage a 'cruise' is to do it a great disservice. It is every bit the true quest and holds faithfully to the fundamental urge that drove Mawson, Shackleton, Scott and so many others to seek this mysterious and foreboding land. Thankfully today we can do it in vastly more comfortable ships with state-of-the-art equipment.

Sunday, 19 December 2010
Day 11:
approaching Commonwealth Bay and the Antarctic Circle

“The sun, already high in the heavens, for we were in latitude 65degS, bathed it with light, causing it to stand out in vivid contrast to the cobalt ocean and sombre gloom of the distance. As I gazed at the wonderful and, to me, novel sight, I felt that we were at last really at the threshold of that Great White South – whence providence alone knew how many of us would return.” So wrote Herbert G. Ponting of his first sighting of an Antarctic iceberg as he sailed south with Scott in 1911 aboard Terra Nova. His century-old prose still precisely reflects the feelings of anyone sighting their first mighty tabular iceberg, sometimes as big as entire city
blocks.

The day also delivered Emperor and Adelie penguins, seals and both Blue and Humpback whales. Although the dense pack ice slowed us to a crawl at times, the captain pressed on, crunching and crushing his way through the tight crumble of smashed bergs. Open seas were reached again, spread like an archipelago with massive bergs large enough for two postcodes. As I write we creep south at about 6 knots, the Circle just beyond the horizon and just beyond that, Mawson's fabled Land of the blizzard.




Friday, 17 December 2010
Day 9:
at sea en route to Commonwealth Bay

Our seas continue to smile on us with a mild following swell and at 2300hrs
we passed 63 degrees. The 'first iceberg' competition was announced and won
before dinner and our journey south continues with an anticipated crossing
of the Antarctic Circle after lunch tomorrow. Commonwealth Bay, our first
landfall, is still a day away and our comfort is beyond comparison to that
endured by Mawson and his team 100 years ago at the height of the so-called
'Heroic Era' of Antarctic exploration. Tonight's dinner of pork belly,
string beans and mash followed by three scoops of exotic ice cream and
chocolate sauce would certainly have been decried as cowardice compared to
the Aurora's menu with courageous servings of dried and salted meat, rough
bread and lots of tea and tobacco. Mawson's first voyage even included 12
live sheep.

Today was also marked by a small personal triumph when I discovered that the
otherwise mute Sony flat screen monitors in the bar could be coaxed to play
movies loaded on USB drives. Hence tonight was our first movie night.
Hurray!

Posted by Roderick




Thursday, 16 December 2010
Day 8:
at sea en route to Commonwealth Bay


Folks use the 'down time' of sea legs for all sorts of things. Many are
sorting their thousands of images on laptops and updating journals while
others just relax with a book or catch up on some sleep. Our run out of
Macquarie is relatively smooth and aided by a following sea, so lectures and
documentary screenings are back on the schedule. One other thing about these
voyages is that they attract the hardiest adventurers. In our midst we have
corporate consultants, a movie animator, a former whaler, sundry scientists,
biologists, teachers and academics as well as regular folks. The
international mix includes the US, UK, Poland, New Zealand, France, Russia
and Australia.

Ewen is proving a minor celebrity with his photography tuition, while
expedition crew, Dean and Tess enthral us with their documentaries on
Macquarie Island. Naturalists Adam and Martin fill us in on all the intimate
details of seabird and seal behaviour while conversations with fellow
travellers more than fill the voids between.

At current rate of travel, we expect to reach the continent in around 48hrs,
so there is plenty more time for edification and chit chat.

Posted by Roderick



Wednesday, 15 December 2010
Day 7:
Macquarie Island


Today's excursion involved a guided tour of the base and surrounding with
Ranger Helen. It seemed the young 'weener' elephant seals were even more
curious than at Sandy Bay and several passengers enjoyed close encounters
with inquisitive pups who came close to check them out. What a comic scene
with colourful, plastic-wrapped adventurers sprawled out on the sand coming
nose-to-nose with eight-week-old seal pups. What must they have thought of
us?

Gentoo penguins with nearly fledged offspring stood to attention as our
group made for the historic base, first established sixty-ish years ago. It
is clear that station staff are a cheery, stoic sort of lot relatively
resistant to the privations of remote life. The couple of team members who
came aboard for a meal hooked into the grapes and fresh fruit like crazy.
Back on base, we were treated to a fabulous Devonshire Tea in the mess hall
and mug-for-mug, the base coffee was a clear winner. Souvenirs were
disappointingly scant, but we posted our postcards and stamped our passports
all the same.

Entertainment for the afternoon was provided by the meteorological guy
releasing one of his twice-daily balloons carrying little boxes of sensors
the size of Dick Smith kits with tiny antennae like twisted paper clips.
“Get your pictures quickly, as I won't be hanging on for long in this
breeze.” and away it went, quickly disappearing in the low-hanging mist.

A UNESCO World Heritage site for its geological value, Macquarie Island has
had several lives. First as a sealing base where the massive 5-ton elephant
seals were stripped of their blubber and rendered. Then it was the penguins'
turn in the pot before finally the whole place reverted to a protected
nature reserve and scientific outpost. Much time is now devoted to the
eradication of feral pests like rabbits and rats. Cats were successfully
removed about eight years ago – all at great cost.

Posted by Roderick



Tuesday, 14 December 2010
Day 6:
Macquarie Island


Mercifully, the seas abated to allow us a relatively calm landing at the
Australian base on North Head to collect our guides and head to our landing
point at Sandy Bay.

Ashore we were met by hordes of Royal and King penguins and belching,
snorting masses of elephant seals. The older animals formed scrums of
ill-mannered disorder; pushing, biting, roaring at each other. Recipient
beasts seemed remarkably compliant despite the barrage and shuffled their
considerable bulk to accommodate the aggressor.

Around the periphery, younger “weenies” flopped on the sand, often upside
down, basking in the meagre sunlight. Their doe eyes opened briefly to
inspect us as we wandered past, often acknowledging us with a short snotty
snort. Unlike the feisty fur seals of the Auckland Islands, the elephant
seals seemed content to tolerate us and some of the group joined the little
basking pups spread out on the grey sand.

Inquisitive penguins escorted us around,sometimes coming close to peck at a
shoe lace or bag strap. The delightful animals seemed equally amused at our
antics as we theirs. The Royal penguin rookery is about the size of three
football fields, jam-packed with nesting birds, all placed about pecking
distance from the next. And the smell is something one never forgets.

Posted by Roderick


Monday, 13 December 2010
Day 5:
en route to Macquarie Island

'The movements of the ship are beyond description. Gunwales were underwater
most of the time, the decks awash and forecastle head was mostly lost to
sight as the ship, recovering from her drop into the troughs, plunged into
the waves ahead.”

Thankfully the above quote is not from our voyage, but from Mawson's of
1929. Even so, it is easy to imagine the fury aroused in the seas at this
latitude. While our voyage was a little milder, Expedition Leader, Rodney
Russ, confided it was one of his more 'energetic' in 20 years.

The little 'Spirit of Enderby' ploughed on at a modest 8 knots toward
Macquarie Island tossing us hither and thither making dinner service an
amusing event for the few hardy souls who came to eat.

Posted by Roderick




Sunday, 12 December 2010
Day 4:
Auckland Islands

It seems hardly remarkable now to mention the constant rocking and pitching
of our vessel. Suffice to say it's like trying to sleep in a tumble dryer,
but the passengers and I seem to be holding up remarkably well. A few spare
places at meals only.

Today's challenge is to climb a muddy, rocky 200m bluff to see a Mollymook
colony on the main island of the Auckland Group. A party of twenty kitted up
for the ordeal which was simple enough except for treacherous puddles of
knee-deep muck interspersed with slippery tracks through the abundant
tussock grass. The weather smiled on us and the cameras went crazy.

Back aboard it was an afternoon and evening of predictable, incessant
undulation as we traversed the notorious stretch of water en route to
Macquarie Island which we'll reach early on Day 6.

Posted by Roderick

 

Saturday, 11 December 2010
Day 3:
Enderby Island, Auckland Island Group

Another early start, although a mercifully less violent night. We spent the
whole day ashore exploring this little island once home to a cattle herd and
all the attendant pests that brings. Cats, mice and rabbits have all been
“removed” leaving it to breeding sea lions, albatross and the darling
yellow-eyed penguins as well as numerous other waders, parrots and tits.
There are a few exciting moments as sea lions test our resilience in mock
charges. Some of us charge back, and a ceasefire is established.

I agree to join the hardy walkers and we complete a circumnavigation of the
island on foot. All the while we negotiate with sea lions for safe passage
and give right of way to toddling penguins among the impeding tussock grass.
We detour through the spooky forest, populated with low mossy and gnarly
trees that seem to grab at you. Soggy peat bogs lie in wait and occasionally
a friendly tomtit appears to show you the way. A perfect setting for Peter
Jackson's next movie.

Several shipwrecks, including the Derrycastle and General Grant have left a
tragic legacy and there is a plaque commemorating the dead - a stark
reminder indeed.

Posted by Roderick



Friday, 10 December 2010
Day 2:
Snares Islands

If we thought this would be a gentle introduction – how wrong we were. At
midnight we hit seas and the rocking began. Anything not nailed down quickly
flew about the cabin, including a full bottle of Canadian Club that landed
squarely on my foot. Some sorry looking faces at breakfast this morning.

Our Zodiac cruise inspected the endemic Snares Crested Penguin as well as
sea lions cruising playfully among the kelp. A cry came out for a young
leopard seal patrolling the shore in search of inattentive penguins to
snatch. Expedition leader, Rodney Russ, regaled us with tales of stowaway
convicts cast ashore on these tiny islands. They apparently spent seven
years before rescue and re-incarceration but these islands are now declared
human-free and no-one sets foot here anymore.

Back aboard we are out into the swell again, en route to Enderby Island.

Posted by Roderick



Thursday, 9 December 2010
Day 1:
Invercargill and Port of Bluff, NZ

I'm sure everyone had similar feelings. We were setting out on a 25-day
voyage to cross some of the roughest seas on the planet and to follow the
brave handful of explorers who set out in flimsy craft one hundred years ago
to explore the mysterious East Antarctica.

Made famous by Sir Douglas Mawson in his work, 'Land of the Blizzard' the
Terre Adelie coast of George V Land, which includes Commonwealth Bay and
Cape Denison, is one of the windiest places on Earth. Mawson's hut,
unfortunately located at this spot, is our destination.

With photographer and colleague, Ewen Bell, we sip final frappés at the
world's southernmost Starbucks in Invercargill (46:25 degrees) before
boarding 'Spirit of Enderby' in the nearby port of Bluff. At 4.30pm,
accompanied by a small flight of petrels and shearwaters, we head south and
our odyssey is begun. Tomorrow we pass the Snare Islands, home to more
seabirds than the entire British Isles (or so I'm informed)

Posted by Roderick

Category: Antarctica
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